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Symphony Concerts for Kids on the Autism Spectrum

"Sensory-friendly concerts” offer shorter, intimate performances designed specifically for kids ages 5 to 8



The volume is kept relatively low — think strings and woodwinds, not brass and percussions.

SHUTTERSTOCK

“This is a concert where you can get up, move around, make noise,” music therapist Michael Thomas told the audience at a recent Seattle Symphony show. He invited everyone to get comfortable and then the show began.

Audience members got up, danced and giggled. No one got shushed.

The Seattle Symphony recently introduced “sensory-friendly concerts” — shorter, intimate performances designed specifically for kids ages 5 to 8 on the autism spectrum. Instead of an 80-person orchestra onstage in a cavernous auditorium, just two musicians play a 35-minute show for an audience capped at 10 families in a cozy room.

Thomas makes adjustments as the show goes along to suit the audience, such as encouraging kids to pause for a few deep breaths. He also narrates the performance and encourages everyone to participate, pretending to be trees or singing along to “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” If you’ve been to a sing-along with your tot, you’ll feel right at home. There are the familiar colored scarves, egg shakers and silly songs — albeit set to the background of chamber works performed by professional members of the Symphony. 

Though many of the aspects that tailor the experience to kids on the spectrum are subtle, they have been carefully thought out: the Symphony worked with the University of Washington Autism Center to develop the program, and to train musicians and staff. Apart from their size and length, the concerts differ from other kid-friendly performances in several ways. Seating is flexible: Kids can sit in chairs, on the floor, on cushions, or not at all. The volume is kept relatively low — think strings and woodwinds, not brass and percussions. February’s show featured Jeffrey Barker on flute and Eric Jacobs on clarinet. At the first show, Jacobs noticed kids covering their ears and realized he had to tone it down; the small venue allows for such feedback and interaction. Another key component is predictability. Before the concert, families receive an illustrated schedule and maps and photos of the space.

“For some families, there’s a fear of what they’re not familiar with. If you have a child with different needs, that can intensify that fear even more,” says Kristin Schneider, the symphony’s education and community engagement manager.

Schneider came up with the idea for the concerts when she went back to school for music therapy. She’d been working at Seattle Symphony for a while, and had noticed that the typical kid-oriented concerts might present barriers for some families: the crowds too overwhelming, the music too loud and the parents too concerned about how others might respond to their child’s behavior. 

Her employers supported her idea right away. “The Seattle Symphony really values inclusivity, and making sure that quality music experiences are available to everyone,” Schneider says. “It was a natural fit.”

After two pilots, the symphony launched its first season of sensory-friendly concerts last November. The next concert, The Old Magician, takes place on April 22 and 23 (at 10 am and noon both days). Tickets are available now, and the $35 ticket covers up to four family members.

Before each performance, kids can try out different instruments in the Soundbridge lobby. Some kids are eager to touch; others just want to listen and look. Teaching artists help little fingers pick an autoharp and bow a violin and a cello. 

Another component of the experience is that kids are paired with a “buddy,” a music therapy student from Seattle Pacific University. Senior Colby Cumine was one of the volunteers at February’s concert. Being a music buddy means greeting the families, helping kids engage with the concert, or maybe just playing with blocks in the lobby. “There are times when kids just need a break from music,” Cumine says. And that’s perfectly OK.

The title piece in the February program was a song about two cats with very different personalities. “Even though they are a little different, they still have a great time together,” Thomas says. He talked as the musicians played, pointing out how one part sounded like a timid cat tiptoeing, while another part sounded like a playful cat chasing a butterfly.

Christian Kemmling, 10, was one of the children in the audience. He loves music: his favorite holiday is Christmas because of the caroling, and he enjoys watching concerts on television. Christian has Ohdo syndrome, a rare congenital disorder, and has some autistic characteristics. His mom, Anna Cieslar, says that the much smaller venue and shorter program makes it less stressful for her. And for her son? “It’s nice,” she says, “because he can be who he is and enjoy the concert.” 

Soundbridge at Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; seattlesymphony.org/sensoryfriendly 

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